Bar News - March 22, 2013
Elder, Estate Planning & Probate Law: The Heart of Elder Law: A Personal Perspective
By: David R. Craig
As I write this article, I am on an airplane heading to southwest Florida to visit my 86-year-old mother, a retired flight attendant for TWA.
My mother flew international routes during the 1950s and ‘60s, when air travel was glamorous. Hostesses, as they were called then, wore high heels, served the finest filet mignon, and hob-knobbed with the stars. Just when I think I have heard all of my mother’s stories – and trust me, there are a lot – she will chime in with something like, "Did I ever tell you about the time Joe DiMaggio took me out for drinks in Milan?"
"Wow, mom, really?" And so it goes. Must have been one heck of a time to be young, single, and adventurous.
My mother and I lost my dad about a year ago. They were married for the better part of five decades. He was 87. My father was physically and cognitively healthy until the last year of his life when things went down hill... fast. It was emotionally very hard for my mother to understand what was happening to him. Then as now, she herself was active, engaged in life, and as we say, sharp as a tack. She was booking their next trip to the Far East. He was struggling with basic everyday tasks we all take for granted. Despite years of top quality estate planning work, the dramatic changes and new realities hit my mother furiously. Learning to cope with my father’s rapidly changing situation was very difficult for her. Having lived through it vicariously with family after family in my own law practice, I did what I could to help my mom with all of the tough decisions, whether medical, legal, financial, or personal. Certainly not easy, but we got through it.
So what is "Elder Law" anyway? How do you define it? Catchy labels are never helpful, particularly those as subtly misleading as "elder law." It is only now, after nearly 15 years in this practice area, that I am beginning to understand what the term really means. Elder law practice weaves its way through virtually everything we do as trusts, estates, and personal planning attorneys. It is present in so many ways that it often hides in plain sight. If I can use this opportunity to clear up the single biggest misconception, please allow me. Elder law issues affect everyone, not just the elderly.
Yes, what my mother went through is at the heart of elder law, but there are so many diverse aspects to this practice. Consider some recent clients: Tony started losing his wife to Alzheimer’s disease in her early 60s. With help from the home and community-based Medicaid waiver, we were able to keep Tony’s wife home with him for an extended period of time before ultimately making a smooth transition to a nursing facility when a higher level of care was needed.
Heather, a disabled young woman, inherited a modest sum from her late father. Through a guardianship proceeding, we were able to create a supplemental special needs trust to hold her inheritance and provide a safety net for needs the normal state programs would not cover, without jeopardizing her current level of support.
And then there’s Gary, who passed away from a genetic disease that came on in his 40s. We structured his modest life insurance to pay into a trust for his minor child, to help pay for college.
I do not know about you, but I would not call these people elderly. They are just like the rest of us – people with difficult problems that suddenly fell into their laps. They needed attorneys with insight, experience, and practical problem-solving skills to help them through. That is what we "elder law" attorneys do.
Upon arriving in Florida, I am pleased to see that my mother is doing very well. She has survived the major life event of losing her husband just about as well as anyone can. She knows things are forever changed, but she does not dwell on sadness. She stays engaged in life and carries on. She is a bit slower these days, and I do worry about her as any caring child would.
For my part, I try to keep an eye on her. I proactively help her with personal planning. I help her understand options to remain independent as long as she possibly can. I help her through the difficult transitions life inevitably brings. In other words, I help my mother with her myriad "elder law" matters. Just do not ever let her catch you calling her "elderly." She might remind you she can still walk across the ocean in high heels and hold her Scotch better than just about anyone.
David R. Craig is the principal of a small firm practice in New Boston and a certified elder law attorney.